Trump unleashed a slanderfest and it is the one “trickle-down” principle that seems to be working. I have experienced it and a remarkable number of my clients and acquaintances in the church have experienced, it too.
Slander is not, “Someone told the truth about me and I did not like it.” That may be impolite, if they have not warned you how the truth might hurt you, but it is not slander. Slander is “character assassination.” It is when you tell a lie, share an unproven statement as fact, or provide innuendo that demeans someone’s character. In the most public sense, such damage is actionable. But slander mostly happens in small systems like the office or the church where leaders are controlling the narrative or where leaders are being taken down by unhappy or ambitious subordinates. Slander is a weapon in everyday power plays. It would be easier to recognize if everyone who wields the weapon knew they were doing it, but people believe lies and spread them as if it is righteous to do so. They also get caught in systems that will hurt them, too, if they don’t follow the latest party line/lie.
The Bible repeatedly teaches about the importance of words and the deadliness of slander. In Proverbs 16:28 it says “A perverse [person] spreads strife / And a slanderer separates intimate friends.” Slander is the spark that lights the fuse of gossip which can blow up a reputation and divide whole systems.
Slander is a hard infection to beat
It is acutely painful to be slandered, and pastors and ministry leaders are particularly easy targets. An acquaintance recently attended a church meeting at which 20+ pages of anonymous criticism of them was distributed but nothing from other people who had submitted glowing praise. Another was subjected to a secret collection of hearsay about their interactions in the office and was demoted even though the investigation was never concluded. If you have been an influencer or manager for a while, you have likely had someone publicly attack your character based upon some action or word they misconstrued or based upon their perception of something you did. It can be devastating.
Noting someone’s unhealthy behavior, as you see it, is part of sorting out relationships. Questioning the value or validity of someone’s judgment or methods is part of improving a mission. Everyone needs feedback and probably needs to be saved from their worst traits, at times. We all deserve the respect to receive such words of “constructive criticism” within a trusting relationship — and we all need to stay open to those words, even when the process is imperfect. But character assassination is quite a another thing. If you watched the State of the Union address and listened to the aftermath, you probably felt, like I did, the country seems to be simmering in slander. The political arena, social media, workplaces, associations, marriages all seem ready to boil.
The last place in the Bible where slander is directly mentioned directly is 1 Peter 3, where he teaches:
Make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame.
The way to that grown-up faith leads through a battleground for our souls as we trip over the slander thrown in our paths. Even so, the journey can be transforming, if we don’t let slander rule us. Here are steps to take toward a transformed destination.
If you are slandered, feel it
Not too long ago, I heard of an incident when someone again slandered me in public. Thank God they were doing it in a very small pond, but the nasty water lapped on my doorstep. I was angry. I think that’s a natural response to being violated. I was hurt so bad I shook with emotion. I’m not ignoring those feelings right now, even though writing about them is painful, because ignoring emotions increases the likelihood they will find an unhealthy road to travel out of their warehouse. Be angry but do not sin.
If we can acknowledge our emotions and respect them as they pass through, we won’t be tethered by the slander that aroused them – at least that is a possibility. It is better to stay anchored in who are and in what we have been given to do.
Slander is so divisive it can make us doubt ourselves. A ruthless liar can make us doubt we even know our own truth! In the midst of chaos, especially the emotional chaos triggered by slander, we must anchor in what we know is true regarding who we are, what our convictions are, and what our mission in life is. Otherwise, we will be tossed around like a small boat in the middle of a storm.
If a cloud of slander comes down on you, it makes sense to get some practical distance. Don’t jump into an argument (like Facebook is still famous for). You might want to quarantine calls from people who will keep stirring you up.
Distance yourself emotionally too. Notice if you are ruminating on your injury or falsely being ashamed of yourself. One person I know was slandered and wouldn’t show their face in their small town for a month! The sooner we accept we can’t change what has happened and move into new territory, the better. Part of moving on might be connecting with anyone who may have been affected and explaining your situation no matter how embarrassing it may seem. Tell the truth about the lie and let it pass.
Check your perceptions and sources
One time a person felt slighted by the church and somehow got their dissatisfaction reported on in a local paper! It caused a small cyclone of recrimination and fear about our reputation. That’s what slander does and why it is such a favored tool among power-hungry people.
Before you jump to conclusions and take some vengeful action on such people, make the effort to confirm you actually know what happened. Obviously, people get misquoted in the media all the time. And gossip is not a reliable source of facts. If you can talk to the source, that would be ideal (see below). If you question what people are telling you, you might discover it is not the worst you imagine.
You can try contacting websites where slander is posted and ask them to take it down, but you may find some will demand cash and try to bully you into signing up for useless programs to “repair your reputation.” A lot of those sites are run by borderline “scammers” themselves. Some lawyers specialize in removing lies.
Stand up for yourself
You may need the law to help you. [Here is an explanation of the Pennsylvania defamation law]. When I was defrauded by a contractor in 2020, I looked into a lawsuit. The lawyer I consulted was kind enough to tell me it would cost me much more than I would ever recover if I received anything at all. The defamation law is mostly for rich people, too.
It is not a good idea to just roll over and let a slanderous person roll over you. But fighting fire with fire might not come to a good end, either. For instance, if you get involved in addressing all the accusations in public, it might just feed the fire. You might unwittingly validate the lie and the liars by treating them with undue respect. But telling your story can make a difference. At least tell people with sympathetic ears what the truth is and let it have whatever effect it will. Don’t bottle it up.
Don’t let slanderers steal your joy. A slanderer needs that kind of power. They weren’t speaking a love language. It is not totally your fault they hurt you. If a person wants to bring you down and make you feel bad, there must be something wrong with them. So don’t live as if their lie deserves to preoccupy you. Go out on the town, hit the gym, or do whatever you enjoy doing. Don’t let go of your accomplishments and happiness.
Gently confront the slanderer (not by text or email)
It’s amazing how often people engage in the sin of slander without realizing it. Therefore, the most loving thing you can do for all parties concerned—including the slanderer—is to gently, lovingly confront them. Such a conversation should be done in person, not over email, text, phone, or social media. In certain situations, it might be helpful to bring a friend or an outside party trusted by both of you. But it is probably best to begin by going alone (try Matthew 18!). Bringing someone else in too quickly can escalate the situation.
It’s important to go in “a spirit of gentleness” (Gal. 6:1), and not put the other on the defensive with a fault-finding or accusatory tone. Here are two ways to do this:
- Begin with questions. This enables you to get all the facts before arriving at any conclusions, and it’s less confrontational. But don’t shy away from using the word “sin” and “slander” if that’s what it is.
- Express vulnerability to the slanderer. This is easy to overlook since it’s not our natural tendency when dealing with someone who has hurt us. But sentences which begin with “I felt sadness/pain when…” rather than “you sinned against me when…” are more likely to “gain your brother/sister” (Matt. 18:15), which is the most important goal. Amazingly, because some people slander without realizing it, they’re genuinely surprised they’ve hurt you. Starting off with sharing your heart rather than with accusation can de-escalate the situation and produce a peaceable result.
It’s awkward and scary to confront someone. But if you can, it is better. Some people see the straightforward approach of Matthew 18 as impossible for disempowered people who have a lot to lose when confronting a person in power. But I don’t think Jesus was talking to people who could go toe-to-toe with their overlords, either. To be honest, this option may not be open to you at all, since slander is often accompanied with being cut-off, these days. The ultimate slander is being “cancelled,” isn’t it? Nevertheless, if you have the context it would be best to “overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21).
If you can’t get repentance and reconciliation at least exercise forgiveness. If we forgive those who slander us and don’t participate in their cut-off, we are less likely to be trapped in bitterness and more likely to be released into the freedom we need to make healthy decisions with a clear mind.
It’s sometimes right to to defend your reputation against those who have slandered you, especially if you are in a leadership role and the slander damages the business or mission. But it is often better to stay silent and let truth be your advocate in the long run. If you don’t have the character, defending it won’t make much difference, but if you do, it will probably have staying power.
Even if you do need to defend yourself, give it some time. Don’t panic. Don’t explode. Don’t be guided by fear. It is hard to say whether Paul is defending Jesus and his mission or himself (or if he should separate the two) in 1 Thess. 2 and 2 Cor. 10–13, but I can’t remember a time when defensiveness ever built love.
Slander sets off our fear and a slew of “what ifs.” But most people who hear slander can smell it. And even if they are too afraid to shout it down, they probably won’t move with it. The famous Spurgeon said: “A great lie, if unnoticed, is like a big fish out of water—it dashes and plunges and beats itself to death in a short time.” He hasn’t lived through the Trump era, but he’s probably right.
Even if our good character does not “win the argument” for us, it is better to trust truth than just fearfully fight lies. After all, it’s in the context of being maligned that Jesus says, “Have no fear of them, for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known” (Matt. 10:26).
It takes humility to trust, especially when we feel humiliated. Since we know all things work together for good in Christ we should give it a try. We might humbly think we could learn something from being slandered. There is probably a seed of truth in the lie, or it would not be effective. You did not do everything right. You may need improved skills. You may need better boundaries. You might recognize a ticking time bomb next time. You might see how you were codependent with a toxic person.
Even as I am letting the slanderer pass through and out of my mind and emotions, I wish them grace, I love my enemy. I don’t let them get stuck in my prayer, either, as if they should dominate that, too (and as if I will triumph over them when they repent!). Just last night I felt I was getting somewhere in this area I woke up from a dream in which I was sitting down at a table and one of my enemies was chatting with me like we were friends. My insides were definitely recovering!
Be a transformed victim
Tim Keller is famous for saying, “In Christ I’m not just more sinful than I ever dared fear, but more loved than I ever dared hope.” In Christ, each of us is a beloved child of God; right now the Spirit of God is praying for us. Jesus was slandered and killed by his enemies. He’s OK and we will be too.
I wrote the Senior paper for my history B.A. on George Whitefield. Here he is with his famous dramatic flare to make a good point to end with:
Let the name of Whitefield perish, but Christ be glorified. Let my name die everywhere, let even my friends forget me, if by that means the cause of the blessed Jesus may be promoted. . . . I am content to wait till the judgement day for the clearing up of my reputation; and after I am dead I desire no other epitaph than this, “Here lies G. W. What sort of man he was the great day will discover.”
I can almost guarantee that Whitfield did not completely think or feel all that he said. But, like me, he certainly intended to. I feel I’m good with Jesus. I feel bad when others lie about me, unjustly accuse me, or don’t bother accusing me at all and undermine my reputation in secret. But in the end, it is always being saved by grace that matters.
If you’ve got some feelings or insight about this, please leave a comment or two. Do you agree we are simmering in slander in the U.S.? Have you experienced some of it? What are you doing to recover that works for you?